The New Literary Bad Boys

On The Death and Rebirth of Masculine Fiction

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the literary scene was overflowing with bad boys. Writers like Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer, or even little Martin Amis, attacked the page with a masculine gusto that produced novels such as Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, a hilarious coming-of-age story that depicts the male libido in all its absurdity. The novel was so provocative, that Roth, a Jewish-American writer, was denounced by rabbis for writing what they considered to be vile smut. There was a gleeful aggressiveness to the bad boys’ writing, and to the way they carried themselves. Consider Mailer’s appearances on The Dick Cavett Show — particularly the evening in 1971 when he sparred with Gore Vidal, threatening violence and belittling the studio audience once words failed him. It was puffed up buffoonery, sure, but in this era of the manicured artist, where writers and their publicists meticulously cultivate their brands, it’s electrifying to watch a literary great flail like a madman. Which begs the question: where have all the literary bad boys gone? 

In the last decade or so, the literary world has become an inhospitable place for young male writers. The overwhelmingly female editorial side of publishing seems to have made a mission not only of dismantling the boys’ club — arguably a worthy goal — but also of seeking dramatic redress. The disappearance of the young male novelist has been sporadically recognized, if not thoroughly investigated. Last year, writing in The Atlantic under the headline “There is a Culture Industry That Gives Its Top Prizes to Women,” Juliet Lapidos delivered the truth with surprising frankness: “The big literary awards this year have been positively dominated by female writers and — remarkably — this is considered totally unremarkable. This is the good-news story contradicting persistent gender inequities in, it often seems, every other field.” Commenting on how female writers dominated the literary award season of 2019, she goes on to say that “not much attention was paid to this pattern, probably because women’s names have been filling the literary award slates for the better part of this century.” Well, the young male novelists, published or not, are aware of this pattern! They are aware too, of what one critic writing in The Times Literary Supplement called “a literary culture feminized to the point of strangulation.” So what exactly is this culture like today?

The publishing world is still dominated by a very specific type of rising star. She is online, progressive, and impeccably feminist. She has an elite background, got her BA at a northeastern liberal arts institution, before picking up a post-graduate qualification or two. Currently, she resides in a gentrified part of Brooklyn. Ironically, these beneficiaries of a push for inclusion have shaped a literary scene that is as lacking in diversity as their apartment blocks. They consider two types of books worthy of publication: the female-narrated, elite-world comedy of manners and the multicultural narrative of brown victimization and suffering. What they especially don’t consider worthy, which explains its disappearance from the publishing industry altogether, is the heterosexual male bildungsroman. Lads: it’s over. 

Published a few months ago, Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts is a novel perfectly in tune with the concerns of this social media-addled cohort. It might have been written by an algorithm fed by the tweets of women who subscribe to the New Yorker. Oyler’s success is not a surprise. Fake Accounts has been so thoroughly lapped up, and propped up, by the new media gals who serve as both its audience and proselytizers, that one can only tip the hat in admiration at how beautifully she played the game and her readership. Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, describes it as a “bold debut” and an “incisive, funny work” that “brilliantly captures the claustrophobia of lives led online and personae tested in the real world.” If by bold and incisive one means that a book is blanketed by universal praise from the very same industry and culture that it supposedly satirizes, then yes, Fake Accounts is very incisive and very bold.

Oyler is only the latest incarnation of what I call the female literary bad boy, women who occupy the space that once belonged to the likes of Roth and Mailer. If masculine fiction has all but been abolished, it’s been replaced by its female counterpart, a highly feminized fiction that traffics in an unvarnished, and sometimes grotesque, vision of femininity. The main practitioners of this genre are Roxane Gay and Ottessa Moshfegh, whose gritty stories of female sexuality and the downsides of modernity from the point of view of young, urban women, have been met with critical acclaim. Gay and Moshfegh are talented writers, but what’s most interesting about their work from a cultural perspective is how it tackles the subject of femininity with an intensity usually associated with male writers of a previous era. Basically, with the ribald males banished, they’re the closest thing we’ve got to literary bad boys. The story, however, that epitomizes this gritty female realism, and its cultural ascendancy, is Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian. Published in the New Yorker, the story details a brief love affair between a 20 year old woman and an older man and their murky one-time sexual encounter that blurs the line between consent and non-consent. In the era of MeToo, Cat Person reached that rare pinnacle for a short story: it went viral. Cat Person, in a sense, signaled the end of the male author as the chronicler of contemporary sexual dynamics.

As a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the top creative writing program in America, I’ve seen firsthand the cultural shift that has led to the disappearance of the bad boy. When I was at the Workshop a little over a decade ago, my male peers turned in material that would be considered toxically masculine if judged by current standards. In the years that followed my graduation, as wokeness began to infect the literary world, and projects like the Vida Count — an annual survey of the number of women published in literary journals and presses — began to shape the conversation, the bad boys, and masculine fiction, in general, were increasingly relegated to the fringes. Anyone in the scene knows this shift has been occurring but saying something would label one as problematic or misogynistic, so whisper networks emerge instead, and male frustrations, fair and unfair, about the state of the literary world spread through Twitter DMs, emails and anonymous posts. Young male novelists are now rather rare — and it’s not just the States. “Where are the new hotshot male novelists?” asked James Marriott in The Times. Examining the Booker Prize 2020 longlist, he noted: “There was a time when you couldn’t move for successful young male novelists. They are much scarcer now. If the young male novelist isn’t quite extinct, he certainly no longer enjoys the cultural ubiquity he once did.” Indeed. So where has all that energy gone?

***

Increasingly over the past few years, anonymous Twitter users and other talented ‘weirdos’ online have been documenting their atomized lives on a daily basis. Most of the time, these tweets, YouTube comments, and memes offer nothing more than a snapshot of the modern male condition, but on occasion, you’ll read a random blog post by some poor sap in Ohio or a tweet thread by an obsessive autodidact and think: there it is. This guy, whoever he is, has captured something. These epiphanic moments, no longer transmitted through literary fiction, are now only available online. 

One such writer is Delicious Tacos, a chronicler of the ennui-ridden urban male who’s trying to find love in this disconnected age of dating apps, in which every interaction is transactional and soul-crushing. In “The Women’s March,” a short piece from his latest short story collection, Savage Spear of the Unicorn, he skewers woke capitalism with the acidic prose a mainstream writer would never get past the sensitivity readers that dominate the industry and weed out problematic work:

The Women’s March worked. Trump was deposed. A pink pussy hat now president. Horny killers from Damascus welcomed at LAX by your girlfriend. Schools teach in Mexican. New Chief Usury Officer of Goldman Sachs is trans. Brianna Wu on the $100. Eye in the pyramid now Lena Dunham’s asshole. All pregnancies terminated; late-term abortions turn babies into pugs. Ploughshares beat into social media brand management. All workers sponsored content ambassadors for Huffington Post. Doritos knows Black Lives Matter. New twins in Beyonce’s cunt brought to you by Audi. Lyft pledges allegiance to Sharia. Hadiths mandate polyandrous slavery to blue-haired genders that OKCupid knows no word for. Something to do with My Little Pony. All porn now clips of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Sheryl Sandberg merges with flesh NSA servers like an anglerfish, stares back at you from the place you dare not look. Honey Boo Boo’s Mom Lost 200 Pounds You Won’t Believe How Gorgeous She Is, she says in your inner voice. Like This. Justin Trudeau’s hot soft hand on your back like your gym teacher who drank before noon; his robust yoga pants package crawling and awake. Angela Merkel’s spindly tendons twitch as she palpates your Soylent incubation sac. We won, you guys. Pepsi stands against racism.

Was that offensive? I don’t think so — it’s just edgy fiction. But if you think it was, then stay away from the classics. You would be appalled if you ever caught a whiff of the works of Henry Miller or Faulkner or the Beats. The short piece really is subversive and incisive though, unlike Oyler’s “subversive” and “incisive” novel. 

When I reached out to Delicious Tacos and asked if he’s ever considered going the traditional route and finding an agent, he told me: “My friend asked if he could send my stuff to an agent once. He did. She rejected it. I used to work in Hollywood. I dealt with a lot of book agents and tracked publishing deals. The publishing industry is a stunted, chromosome-damaged version of Hollywood. Why put myself or the agents/publishers through an embarrassing waste of time. They want shit Roxane Gay can write blurbs for, not The Pussy.” 

To call Delicious Tacos a blogger is to shortchange him — he’s self-published four books: three short story collections and a literary-styled post-apocalyptic novel. Rejected by the mainstream world of publishing, lacking an agent or a publicist, those books have sold thousands of copies. Delicious Tacos, despite his loyal readership, is considered an untouchable in the literary world due to his content, and a persona, like the bad boys of old, that is no longer culturally viable. His work, a mix of Raymond Carver and Charles Bukowski, is highly sexualized and misanthropic at times, but 10 years ago, his tales of masculine distress would’ve been considered mainstream fare and fodder for cocktail party conversation.

Another masculine writer is Twitter personality Bronze Age Pervert, whose self-published treatise, Bronze Age Mindset, is a Burroughs-esque pastiche mixing Nietzschean philosophy and anti-modernity aphorisms written in an oftentimes impenetrable meme-speak. The book, popular with online reactionary types and ironic shitposters, caused a stir during the Trump era, as it was labelled an alt-Right manifesto by more than one mainstream outlet. What’s interesting about the Bronze Age Pervert phenomenon is that he’s framed as a right-wing radical, but if one were to treat Bronze Age Mindset and the Twitter account that spawned it as the literary documents that they are, a clearer picture emerges: Pervert is a literary provocateur in the vein of Celine and Houellebecq. From his unmistakable prose style to his persona, that of a discombobulated modern man fusing high-brow esoterica and low-brow camp, it is undeniable that Pervert is a literary creation — a new media take on the classic literary bad boy. He is misunderstood only because the concept of the literary bad boy has all but vanished and is so foreign to mainstream cultural commentators. 

Since so much of the masculine literary talent is now found online, it’s no surprise that some of the best contemporary writing is freely available on Twitter, where anonymous posters generate dizzying amounts of content. To the purist, the idea that the book has been replaced by Twitter is preposterous, but there is no doubt that the online platform, when used by literary-minded users, produces content that supersedes much of the literary fare published by mainstream publishing companies. The Twitter thread, in which a user strings along multiple tweets, is the modern version of the classic short story, a form delivering succinct epiphanic truths for an audience primed to consume content in small doses.

Perhaps the finest master of thread is a user who goes by Zero HP Lovecraft, a skilled craftsman whose detailed compositions break down controversial social issues with a lucidity and wit rivaling the most celebrated cultural commentators and public intellectuals. Lovecraft, who can best be described as a combination of his eponymous namesake and J.G. Ballard, is well-known in the right-wing and reactionary Twittersphere populated mostly by young men, but if talent and insight were the sole metrics that mattered, his work would be widely distributed. The problem, of course, is that his writings are highly critical of feminized modernity and those with weak stomachs who gobble down a steady diet of center-left pablum would consider his material black-pilled and possibly antisocial. 

Lovecraft’s long-form science-fiction writing, which can be found on his blog, is as compelling as his threads and offer the best glimpse into the life of the alienated male NEET who’s been subsumed by technological forces that only serve to further estrange him from corporal reality. His most popular piece, a novella titled The Gig Economy, is a must-read work of psychological horror that offers a terrifying glimpse into the cybernetic dystopia that awaits us all if the spectral forces of the internet continue to shape reality. 

Where once he freely rampaged round the liberal cities of the North-East, the literary bad boy has now been pushed underground, into the deep internet. Toiling in the ether, producing interesting and transgressive work, are thousands of underrated young writers; destined for anonymity, they probably will never be allowed entry into the literary world. Perhaps the next great male writer, already accustomed to a life outside the mainstream, is okay with producing work for himself and his fellow ‘freaks’. But what about those of us who want to read the next Ballard or Bolaño?

Alex Perez is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.


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